An appellate court found one Muslim leader guilty of spreading Salafi Islam and hatred of other religious groups and imposed administrative punishments on 12 other Muslims. The Pazardjik District Court rejected the indictment of 14 Roma Muslims on charges of propagating antidemocratic ideology and incitement to war and aiding foreign fighters, but permitted the prosecution to file new charges, and 12 of the Roma Muslims remained in custody.
Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported continued harassment by the security services, and some minority religious groups continued to report local authorities in certain municipalities discriminated against them, despite their national registration status. Schools banned wearing the hijab and crosses, and local governments continued to deny requests to construct new mosques or other religious buildings or repair existing ones. Jewish organizations expressed concern over hate speech and government passivity in addressing it. In November the city of Sofia cosponsored the Festival of Religions to promote religious tolerance.
In July the Plovdiv Appellate Court confirmed a lower court’s guilty verdict against Ahmed Mussa, increasing his sentence to two years in prison (Mussa will serve a total of five years when time from a prior sentence is included) and a fine of 5,000 levs ($2,782) for preaching Salafi Islam, which the court determined was an “antidemocratic ideology” because it opposed the principles of democracy, division of powers, liberalism, statehood, rule of law, basic human rights, and religious freedom. The court acquitted Mussa’s 12 codefendants of those charges, but gave them administrative fines of between 4,000 levs ($2,226) and 5,000 levs ($2,782) for participating in an organization which spread an “antidemocratic ideology.” The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Marginalia human rights organization criticized the trial for focusing on theological rather than criminal issues, stating it was insulting to the Muslim community and would increase mistrust between Muslims and the rest of the population. The prosecution said the trial served as an effective deterrent against the spread of radical Islam. The grand mufti’s office said the charges on which the trial was based were discriminatory. As of the end of the year, Mussa’s defense team was awaiting the transcript of the appellate court’s deliberations in order to file an appeal with the Supreme Cassation Court (the highest level appellate court for non‑constitutional issues).
In December the Pazardjik District Court rejected for a third time the indictment of 14 Roma Muslims, including Ahmed Mussa, who were arrested during a November 2014 police raid on more than 40 homes and a mosque in the Roma neighborhoods in Pazardjik, Plovdiv, and Assenovgrad. The court found the indictment did not specify why eight of the 14 were part of the accused party, which infringed their procedural rights. The prosecution had charged the 14 Muslims with supporting Da’esh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), assisting foreign fighters, and propagating antidemocratic ideology and incitement to war. The court did not dismiss the case and allowed the prosecution to file new charges. As of the end of the year, 12 of the Muslims remained in custody.
Some registered minority religious groups, including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Hare Krishnas, reported the government failed to prosecute cases of assault and harassment against their members. Some of these attacks were carried out by members of nationalist political parties, particularly the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO).
On April 4, an IMRO party member in the company of a television crew from the SKAT TV cable company, which is owned by an NFSB founder and member of parliament, approached and then attacked a Jehovah’s Witness who was proselytizing in Blagoevgrad, punching him in the left temple and bruising his arm. Prosecutors initially pursued a hooliganism charge against the attacker, but in April the Blagoevgrad Regional Court returned the case to the prosecution, instructing it to pursue an indictment for religious hatred.
In March the government indicted seven people, both Muslim and non‑Muslim, on hooliganism charges for their participation in the 2011 assault on the Sofia mosque organized by the nationalist Ataka Party. At the end of the year, the trial was ongoing at the Sofia Regional Court. In February the European Court of Human Rights ruled the attackers of the mosque had violated the rights of the Muslims attending Friday prayers, and the government had not provided an effective response. It ordered the government to pay the plaintiff 3,000 euros ($3,264) in compensation. The government approved the payment on July 29. At year’s end, the authorities had not identified the perpetrators of the 2011 assault and were still investigating the case.
As part of an ongoing campaign publicized on SKAT, the NFSB, joined by the IMRO, organized protests against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Karlovo, Blagoevgrad, Petrich, and Gotse Delchev. The protests averaged approximately 50 participants each and were reportedly peaceful, although in one protest in April, one member from each of these parties threw eggs at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prayer house in Blagoevgrad while a meeting was being held there. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, these protests sometimes incited other incidents of vandalism such as broken windows at their properties. There were no reports of arrests at any of these protests.
Minority religious groups continued to report discrimination and prejudice from local authorities in certain municipalities. Some municipalities such as Burgas, Kyustendil, and Karlovo had ordinances prohibiting door‑to‑door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature. Despite letters of protest by the Directorate for Religious Affairs and the ombudsman against the restrictions, the regional governors of Burgas, Kyustendil, and Plovdiv continued to enforce the ordinances. Jehovah’s Witnesses received police warnings in Burgas and Kyustendil to stop proselytizing and administrative fines (six fines of 800 levs [$445] each in Kyustendil and two in Burgas of 50 levs [$28] each) for violating local regulations. The religious group filed written objections to the police warnings and appealed the fines in court, winning three cases and losing one. Jehovah’s Witnesses were reportedly also preparing to challenge the ordinances themselves in court.
The government permitted religious headdresses in official photos for national identity documents as long as both ears and 1centimeter (2/5 of an inch) of hair were visible. The Commission for Protection from Discrimination and most schools interpreted the law denying privileges based on religious identity to ban the display of all “religious symbols,” e.g., hijabs and crosses, in public schools.
In June more than 500 Muslims gathered in front of the historic mosque in Karlovo to protest against municipal plans to turn it into a museum. The mayor of Karlovo had prohibited the demonstration, but the prohibition was overturned by the Administrative Court in Plovdiv. The Sofia City Court had ruled in 2013 that the mosque belonged to the Muslim community, a ruling that the municipality was appealing in the Sofia Appellate Court. At year’s end, the Sofia Appellate Court had yet to issue a decision. Protesters stated the municipality had fabricated non‑Muslim artifacts to support its case that the mosque belongs to the entire community and should be converted to a museum. Approximately 200 counter‑protesters sang the national anthem and booed the demonstrators. The mayor stated he would not allow the Muslims to own something that belonged to the people of Karlovo. In a public letter, the mayor wrote that the mosque was not a mosque but a historical building and a monument that had been built as a Muslim house of worship but for a long time had not been used for that purpose.
In May the Sofia Appellate Court ruled in favor of former Grand Mufti Nedim Gendjev, appointed to the office by the former Communist government, in his legal challenge against the current grand mufti’s office, which Gendhev said was not the rightful successor to the former Muslim religious communities existing from the 1920s to the 1940s. The Sofia court suspended all restitution claims by the grand mufti’s office pending resolution of the latter’s appeal of the decision to the Supreme Cassation Court. At year’s end, the court had yet to rule on the appeal.
The Gotse Delchev prosecutor’s office ruled midyear there was insufficient evidence to support that municipality’s claim that the local mufti had provided a counterfeit preliminary approval of the Muslim community’s application for a permit to construct a mosque. The municipality, however, continued to withhold issuance of a construction permit for the mosque. The Sofia municipal government continued to withhold permission for building a second mosque in Sofia on the grounds that the application for a building permit was not complete. By year’s end, the Muslim community had yet to take further action in either case.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated local authorities refused to issue building permits or deliberately altered zoning regulations to prevent the group from erecting buildings for religious purposes. In February the chief architect of Kyustendil refused to issue a building permit for a prayer house, despite a ruling by the Kyustendil Administrative Court directing the municipality to overcome the obstacles to issuing the permit. In August the mayor of Shumen issued an order designating a property the Jehovah’s Witnesses purchased in May for public use and rejecting the Jehovah’s Witnesses application to construct a prayer house and fence on the property. The Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to the Shumen Administrative Court, which had not issued a ruling by year’s end.
Many Muslim leaders continued to report harassment by the security services and stated that those services had pressured public schools to stop offering courses on Islam. In September the government launched an inspection of the public school and kindergarten in Sofia’s Botunets neighborhood, with approximately 90 percent Muslim students, after media reported that the kindergarten director posted on its website quotations from the Quran to try to induce more parents to enroll their children in the school. The grand mufti’s office reported that, as a result of the probe and pressure by security services, the school removed the course on Islam from its curriculum, and the kindergarten began serving pork with meals three times per week. In April a group of Muslim citizens from the city of Kurdjali filed a complaint with the regional prosecutor of Kurdjali, the Council of Ministers, and parliament that the government forced schools and kindergartens with majority‑Muslim student bodies to serve non halal food. The regional prosecutor of Kurdjali and the Council of Ministers responded that there was no legal requirement for food in educational establishments to comply with the religious beliefs of the students or their parents.
The Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith expressed concern over what it stated was government and judicial passivity in addressing hate crimes, particularly the prosecution’s tendency to dismiss hate speech complaints on the grounds of freedom of expression.
In January a regional prosecutor in Sofia terminated proceedings against four youths who had urinated on a synagogue wall and spray painted “Death, Jews,” arguing that they were answering a call of nature and expressing a personal opinion artistically.
In June President Rosen Plevneliev hosted his second annual iftar, inviting the leaders of the six religious groups comprising the National Council of Religious Denominations (a nongovernmental organization [NGO] that works on projects and issues of common interest and promotes religious tolerance): BOC members, Muslims, evangelicals, Catholics, AAOC members, and Jews. At the iftar, Plevneliev said Bulgarians, regardless of their religion, showed solidarity by extending a hand to those in need. He recalled earlier that month he had presented the Order for Civil Merit to Muslims who had advocated for human rights under Communism, calling their deeds an example of people of different religions uniting and saying “no” to hatred.
In November Sofia municipality, in partnership with the National Council of Religious Denominations, organized the second annual Festival of Religions, a day of music performances, open houses, and sharing of information about each religious group. Titled “Tolerance and Diversity: European Values for a Modern Capital City,” the event included written remarks by the Mayor of Sofia, Yordanka Fandakova, who said the presence of different religions in Bulgaria as proof that peaceful co‑existence was possible, especially in places like Sofia, where representatives of five different denominations prayed within a few blocks of each other.
As a matter of policy, the government recognized Orthodox Christianity, Hanafi Sunni Islam, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism as holding a historic place in the country’s culture and expressed a willingness to work more closely with these groups.
The state budget allocated 4.5 million levs ($2.5 million) for registered religious groups, including 3.26 million levs ($1.81 million) for the BOC; 360,000 levs ($200,000) for the Muslim community; 50,000 levs ($27,800) each for the Roman Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community; and 80,000 levs ($44,500) for other registered denominations. Funds were allocated based on the size of the denomination. Religious groups could use this money for maintenance of religious facilities and for research and publication of religious literature. The government allocated 450,000 levs ($250,000) for maintenance of religious facilities of national importance, 50,000 levs ($27,800) for publication of religious books and research by the National Council of Religious Communities and by smaller religious groups, while another 150,000 levs ($83,500) remained in reserve, including 10,000 levs ($5,565) for updating the register of religious facilities in the country. Other registered denominations had to apply to the Directorate for Religious Affairs for funds, and the directorate stated its goal was to make sure denominations which had not received funding previously received funding if they applied. During the year, all 15 applicants received monetary support, but the amount of funds awarded was small: less than 10,000 levs ($5,565) each.
The country is an observer at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.